LEFT: Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis gets a ride in a new battle tank at the Michigan plant where it was being manufactured in 1988. (AP Photo/Michael Samojeden) RIGHT: A video still of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his “Top Gov” political ad. (Ron DeSantis, Republican, For Governor)

“People are voting with their feet,” Governor Ron DeSantis said in Iowa this month, boasting about Florida’s fastest-in-the-nation population growth. “What we’ve seen is a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians imposing leftist ideology and causing their societies to decay.” And he assured the audience during a stop on his book tour that Florida’s population boom wasn’t just New York retirees looking for sunshine in Boca Raton. “That happened for sure, but when you have people uprooting from California to come 3,000 miles,” he argued, “that is a result of leadership, it’s a result of vision, it’s a result of standing up for what’s right.” 

And if you believe that, I have a Florida timeshare to sell you. 

Yes, Florida was the fastest-growing state last year, but the underlying data does not indicate a Sunshine State stampede following DeSantis’s own-the-libs approach to governing.  

Florida has long had healthy population growth, driven by retirees drawn to warmth and reasonably priced housing. For example, in the final term of DeSantis’s predecessor, Rick Scott, Florida’s annual growth ranged between 1.5 and 1.8 percent. That consistently placed Florida in the top five growing states. 

In DeSantis’s first three years in office, growth actually slipped a tick, ranging from 1.0 to 1.1 percent. But in 2022, it popped up to 1.9 percent. At the same time, the reigning champ, Idaho, grew less than 2 percent for the first time in five years (though it still ranked second among the states at 1.8 percent). So, Florida is not doing especially well under DeSantis; it’s performing as it always has, if a bit unevenly. It’s only number one in the latest ranking because Idaho had a slightly off year.  

DeSantis wants you to believe people are newly drawn to Florida because, under his leadership, it’s “where woke goes to die.” But it’s still the same old Florida where people go to die. (“God’s waiting room,” goes the old joke.) In 2010, 17.3 percent of Florida’s population was 65 and over. By 2021, the senior citizen share of the population had grown to 21.3 percent, while the share of people under 65 went down 2.2 percentage points. This longer-term trend has continued through DeSantis’s reign. Since 2018, the senior citizen share has gone up 0.63 percent, and for other adults, down 0.45 percent.  

Even DeSantis’s claim that Californians are dramatically rushing into Florida is suspect. The Los Angeles Times recently found, “The total of all those moving from California to Florida amounted to 29,000 people, based on changes in driver’s licenses. IRS data suggest that the total might be a few thousand more.” That’s “not even one-tenth of 1 percent of California’s population of 39 million.” And it’s largely offset by Floridians who move to California: “For every six Californians who left for Florida last year, five moved into the state from Florida, according to data from Moody’s Analytics and the credit firm Equifax.” And as with Florida’s overall graying population, “Almost one-third of Californians who moved to Florida were 50 years or older, compared with about 20 percent for those moving to all other states.” 

Unless younger workers relocate to Florida at a similar pace as retirees, the state’s economy will likely get squeezed. University of South Florida economist Michael Snipes told the Tampa Bay Times in December, “We have all these (older) people coming in from out of state with new income that’s been driving a lot of growth. But if you don’t have workers available to meet that growth, that’s going to put pressure (on the labor market) and cause prices to increase at a really high rate.” 

If DeSantis actually cared about governing, he would put effort into making his state attractive to younger workers. But what he really cares about is pandering to rabid right-wingers in early presidential primary states. So, he cooks up culture war stunts designed to attract Fox News coverage and light up conservative social media accounts, even though that makes Florida repellent to many voters from Generations Y and Z. 

The Miami Herald last week investigated how DeSantis’s attacks on “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “critical race theory” initiatives are chilling speech in Florida’s schools, as teachers and administrators fear losing their jobs and funds. The paper talked to a University of Florida sophomore described as fearful that “the repressive political environment will cause the state to hemorrhage talent, especially young people.” He said, “My biggest concern is always people like getting scared away from Florida because of all this stuff. I hear people a lot of the time now, saying, ‘As soon as I’m done with college, I’m moving away.’” 

Of course, DeSantis is not the first governor to run for president by puffing up their record, and no scolding fact-checker from the liberal media is likely to derail his chances for the Republican nomination. But the discerning Republican voter should scrub DeSantis’s story to see if it checks out.  

The argument that DeSantis is a more electable and competent version of Trump rests on his 19.4-point landslide re-election victory. After all, Trump couldn’t get re-elected, losing five states he won four years prior, two of which (Arizona and Georgia) hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton. In 2018 and 2020, Trump lost Republican control of the House and Senate. And several of his preferred congressional candidates lost winnable races in 2022.  

But there’s one place where Trump did just fine: Florida. The reddening of the Sunshine State began with Trump’s flipping it in 2016 after Barack Obama’s back-to-back wins. (Florida’s run of Republican governors goes back even further to Jeb Bush’s 1998 victory.) Of the 15 presidential battleground states in 2020, Florida is the only one where Trump’s margin widened compared to his first presidential campaign.  

For DeSantis to win re-election by 19.4 points after initially surviving a 0.4-point nail-biter in 2018 does seem eye-popping, but it’s not that unusual. Consider other Republican governors who sought reelection last year. In 2022, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was re-elected by 25 points after first winning by only 3.7. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds won by 18.5 after first winning by 2.8. Both are impressive victories, to a point. Ohio and Iowa—just like Florida—are Obama-to-Trump states that went against the national trend. (Trump’s 2020 margin of victory in those two Midwest states was slightly smaller than in 2016, a shift of 1.2 percentage points in Iowa, and 0.04 percentage points in Ohio. But that’s below the national popular shift towards the Democratic nominee of 2.4 percentage points.) They may have once been bellwether states, but they are no longer. 

Though I’m extremely dubious that DeSantis’s anti-woke brand has the slightest thing to do with Florida’s recent population growth, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it does. That still wouldn’t bolster the case that DeSantis has figured out how to turn states from blue to red. Florida was red when he got there. But he may know how to make a red state redder. Baby Boomers, who are twice as likely than Generation Z to identify as Republican, now drive Florida’s retiree influx. When Florida was more competitive for Democrats, Florida’s retirees were the parents of Baby Boomers, whose politics were shaped by the Depression and the New Deal, not by culture wars. 

DeSantis’s premise is wrong. People don’t vote with their feet; they vote with their votes. DeSantis’s argument doesn’t explain why Arizona—which has absorbed more California escapees than Florida—has trended blue. Relatively small shifts in migration patterns don’t tell us which way the political winds are blowing.  

Democrats once nominated a governor for president, fresh off a landslide re-election, who claimed he could do for the country what he did for his home state. His name was Michael Dukakis, and he dubbed his state’s 1980s economic turnaround the “Massachusetts Miracle.” However, in the 1980s, a right-leaning electorate did not embrace liberal Massachusetts values. (Texas Governor Rick Perry sought to win his party’s nomination in 2016 running on a Texas miracle.) The Republican nominee George H. W. Bush famously bludgeoned Dukakis for his opposition to the death penalty, his support for granting furloughs to convicted murderers, and his veto of legislation requiring teachers to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis’s early polling lead crumbled in the barrage, and he won only 10 states. 

Republican primary voters should ask themselves if DeSantis is their Dukakis. 

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.